Black war dead win royal tribute
Friday 24 March 1995
It has taken 78 years, but Britain yesterday finally honoured, on their home soil, the 607 black South Africans who died on their way to the First World War as labourers, not allowed to carry arms for fear they would learn to shoot white Europeans.
The Queen, on the fourth day of her visit to South Africa, unveiled a memorial for the 607 dead in Soweto's Avalon cemetery. Looking on were descendants of those who drowned when the SS Mendi troopship collided with a liner in the English channel in the early hours of 21 February 1917.
"We are so pleased she came to see how we are living," said Nonkhitha Wauchope, a 59-year-old minder of stray and orphan children. But, anger was not far beneath the surface as she sat among her two dozen relatives and the descendants of the men's chaplain, the Rev Isaac Wauchope Dyobe.
"They took them like slaves. They were the shields of the whites," Ms Wauchope said. Her relative, Victoria Nomonde, became almost hysterical as she talked. "You know, they did not pay any pension, any money at all. Now I am sitting in a tin shack. I have nothing."
British military sources said it was probable that no pensions or compensation had been paid, but that there was a memorial in Southampton about the troopship tragedy. Relatives have long remembered the deaths with a version of a speech by Mr Dyobe as the SS Mendi sank. It became an African song and is now reproduced on a plaque near the victims' names.
"Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death," the speech goes. "I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers: Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos. We die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our houses, our voices are left with our bodies."
About 20,000 volunteers for the South African Native Labour Contingent helped the allies in the 1914-18 war. The Queen did not offer her public thoughts on the rights or wrongs of Britain's actions and the new government of South Africa was not dwelling on the past.
"In the past, black people were not looked after. God brought the Queen from overseas to look after us," chanted a black South African priest from the Second World War.
Tokyo Sexwale, leader of the Johannesburg provincial government, honoured her as "the beloved Queen of the whole commonwealth."
Nelson Mandela went out of his way to attend the ceremony. The President arrived in the flat expanse of Avalon cemetery on the back of a pick- up truck and used a blue soft-drinks crate to step down to the muddy ground.
The beaming President was greeted with loud cheers by a crowd of hundreds of onlookers, whose numbers had been limited by rainy weather, a lack of publicity for security reasons and a low level of media interest.
The Sowetan newspaper's front page trumpeted that the "king" had arrived - the Brazilian footballer Pele, that is. Inside, it noted the large crowds that greeted the Queen in Port Elizabeth yesterday, but made no mention of her engagements at Avalon or with British-supported charity projects in the township of 3.5 million people.
Large numbers of schoolchildren lined routes where the Queen was scheduled to appear, standing before walls decorated with political slogans, love notices and a spray-painted picture of a condom. Waving madly, they greeted visitors with screams and half-joking shouts of "Twenty cents! Cigarette! Money, I want to buy food!"
The irreverent children around the edge of the Avalon cemetery even dared to pull the leg of President Mandela in his own language, as he stood, side by side with the Queen, for one minute's silence in honour of the dead of the SS Mendi. "Hey, Mandela, that your girlfriend?" they shouted. "Go get her!"
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